12-bar blues

12-bar blues is an extremely common structure when playing blues. To perform a 12-bar blues you play, as the name implies, twelve bars in a given pattern. There are many different patterns to use and here you get a look at some of the most standard.

A 12-bar blues are commonly written out by the chords that are used, but you can also combine these with scales.

A standard 12-bar blues

(1) E7 / / / - (2) E7 / / / - (3) E7 / / / - (4) E7 / / / -
(5) A7 / / / - (6) A7 / / / - (7) E7 / / / - (8) E7 / / / -
(9) B7 / / / - (10) A7 / / / - (11) E7 / / / - (12) E7 / / /

You have probably already guessed that the slashes (/) means repeating of the chord and that the hyphens (-) divide the bars. The numbers are just to illustrate the order of bars.

Playing a scale over the 12-bar blues

Preferably, you could play scales over the chords. You can either play one scale over all bars or change scale as the chord change. When practicing the first method try to play the root tones from the involved chords with extra empathize on the same time the actual chord is being played. You need to develop your ear for this. For an easy start, try to play the E Pentatonic Major Blues scale over the 12-bar blues displayed above (if you don't have anyone what can accompany you with the chords, search on the internet for "backing tracks in E blues").

12-bar blues in minor

(1) Em / / / - (2) Em / / / - (3) Em / / / - (4) Em / / / -
(5) Am / / / - (6) Am / / / - (7) Em / / / - (8) Em / / / -
(9) B7 / / / - (10) Am / / / - (11) Em / / / - (12) Em / / /

Over this 12-bar blues, you could play the Em Pentatonic Blues scale.

As already told there are endless ways to vary the twelve bars (it must not necessarily be twelve bars – the 16-bar blues is also popular), but this is only an introduction. One essential thing however is the turnaround.

12-bar blues with turnaround

(1) E7 / / / - (2) E7 / / / - (3) E7 / / / - (4) E7 / / / -
(5) A7 / / / - (6) A7 / / / - (7) E7 / / / - (8) E7 / / / -
(9) B7 / / / - (10) A7 / / / - (11) E7 / / / - (12) / B7 / /

The novelties are only at the end: in the eleventh bar you start playing five measures for the same chords and then change chord for the last three.

A 12-bar jazz-blues

(1) C7 / / / - (2) F7 / / / - (3) C7 / / / - (4) C7 / / / -
(5) F7 / / / - (6) F7 / / / - (7) C7 / / / - (8) A7 / / / -
(9) Dm7 / / / - (10) G7 / / / - (11) Em7 / / / - (12) Dm7 / G7 /

In this last example, some extra sophistication and complexity was added to the 12 bar blues structure and as a result we got a combination of blues and jazz.